Careers - Once bitten ..

4th December 2009 at 00:00
Making friends with colleagues can be extremely rewarding, but beware ruffled feathers. Kate Townshend offers wise advice

It isn't only school playgrounds where friendships are made and lost. Teaching is a demanding job that requires support and teamwork. But how useful is it to become friends rather than just colleagues? And what are the problems to be aware of to ensure things don't go wrong?

Sandra Aldridge, a business psychologist, says that around 80 per cent of people have met at least one good friend at work. "People thrive on having someone to talk to, share successes and failures with, and to inject a bit of fun along the way," she says.

According to Ms Aldridge, there are other advantages when teachers' professional relationships become personal. "There can be more co-operation, energy and creativity among those that rate themselves as close friends," she says, "probably because friends feel freer and more able to openly express themselves without fear of retribution."

For Year 6 teacher Rebecca Wiggins, who works at Elmbridge Junior School in Gloucester, this has certainly been the case. "Victoria [another teacher] and I have been friends since the day that she started at Elmbridge," she explains. "She knows I've got her back and I know that she has got mine."

For Ms Wiggins, having a close friend at school also aids her professionalism and helps her to look at things from different angles. "Our styles complement each other, as she is neat, organised and a "doer", whereas I'm creative and like a mess. She is my moderator, and with only one look, I know if my ideas are workable or not."

As with any personal interaction, it can be tricky when friendships go wrong, particularly with the complications of maintaining a working relationship. This is something Sara Nicholls, 43, a history teacher at a south London comprehensive, knows first-hand. "When I first started, I quickly became friendly with a woman of about my age in the department. At first, it was great. But it turned out that she'd been saying unprofessional things behind my back."

Ms Nicolls began to find herself tarred with the same brush. "This colleague had a reputation for having lost interest in the job. People began to assume that I was the same. It was difficult to distance myself, even once I knew what she was really like."

Ms Aldridge agrees that caution is vital with work friends. "Staffrooms can be hotbeds of gossip, so it's best to treat things with scepticism until you know who can be trusted. Friendships that turn sour can be disruptive in a school setting, where teachers are drawn into taking sides," she says.

Overall, though, the benefits can outweigh the risks, particularly when stress and emotional demands take their toll. As Ms Aldridge explains: "Outside friends and family can be supportive, but may not understand the unique pressures of teaching." In short, make friends with your colleagues, but remember the boundaries. Good friendships could be enriching both personally and professionally.


- Don't disclose too much personal information too soon.

- Try to talk about things outside of work as well as school.

- Look for people with shared interests and values.

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